Lunch With the Anti-Christ at Western Quarterly Meeting
(& With David Koresh & Jim Jones for Dessert)
There were some remarkable visitors at the session of Western Quarter in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM) on May 9.
Among them were: “false prophets,” others working “in the spirit of the Antichrist,” and not least, potential reincarnations of cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones.
You remember Koresh & Jones, right? Their “careers” ended in a fiery shootout and a huge massacre, which left nearly a thousand victims, including many children.
Well. Not the usual table mates one expects to find at a Carolina Quaker potluck luncheon.
Not that you would have spotted them at first. These apocalyptic intruders were disguised as innocuous-looking attenders from Spring Friends Meeting, a member group of Western Quarter.
But they tipped their nefarious hand by delivering a copy of a letter, and asking that it be attached to the session minutes as a report.
The Spring letter was its response to a call (or was it a demand?) issued by the Yearly Meeting Representative Body in March, that “All meetings shall accept the same core spiritual beliefs as set forth in the NCYM Faith & Practice.”
That call was part of an organized effort to purge the Yearly Meeting of several meetings suspected of holding different (and dangerously non-fundamentalist) religious and social views. The purge campaign has been underway since late summer of 2014, and was described in the journal Quaker Theology here and here.
Spring wrote its letter, a combination faith statement & manifesto, in September after the opening barrage of the purge campaign showed that it was high on the target list.
Among other things, the letter declared that Spring Meeting welcomed spiritual diversity as an opportunity rather than a threat. It also noted that rejection of enforced creeds was a longtime “core belief” of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, and insisted that Spring was not about to leave the yearly meeting, or submit to a purge. (BTW Spring was founded in the 1760s.)
Although I’m an attender at Spring, I had no part in preparing the September letter, and am free to say that I find it an eloquent and courageous expression of most of what can be good about Christ-centered Quakerism. I consider it a model for how the current controversy could be managed in a genuine Christian spirit. (The full text of the Spring letter is here.) Thee should read it. Here’s a key section:
“Regardless of the efforts by some to enforce either strict conformity or separation– which only serves to divide, to ostracize, to cast out, our meeting chooses instead to continue to remain a member of this yearly meeting, to seek harmony, not division. We do not consider differences of beliefs among us as threats, but as opportunities for spiritual growth in a world full of God-created diversity. We shall remain. We seek to speak Truth to Power, and to act by the Golden Rule, after the example of Jesus Christ. We do not demand conformity of others, nor do we seek to be bound by expectations of conformity by others. We place little significance in professions of faith. We ask only to be judged by our actions.”
The purge effort continued through the fall, however, and when the followup “affirmation” demand came in March, Spring decided the September letter was a sufficient response. They “re-affirmed” it without change, and although it had long been public, asked its representatives to the Quarter to pass it on at the May session.
The actual delivery itself was quiet enough: During the opening roll call of meetings, when meeting representatives speak briefly about what’s going on with them, a Spring representative passed the letter on to the Clerk, with a request to attach it to the minutes as a Meeting report.
The rest of the Quarter session proceeded without incident, until it was about to adjourn for lunch.
But then Josh Conrad, pastor of Edward Hill Friends, which was hosting the session, hurried in with a stack of copies of the Spring letter, which he had just had printed, and insisted that it be distributed to all present, which they were.
Then a Spring representative was asked to read it aloud, while Friends followed along with the text.
The reading itself was very impressive, I thought.
However, following the reading, various pastors spoke up, including Andrew Needham of South Fork Friends, Wayne Lamb of Chatham Friends, Archie Creed of Cane Creek, and Edward Hill’s Josh Conrad.
All said they did not agree with various items in Spring’s letter, and questioned how Spring could hold the views in it and stay in the body. There was also a question about whether Spring regarded the Bible or the Spirit as the “absolute” authority for Friends, insisting that the Bible was to be the standard. (The Spring letter quotes early Friends’ declarations that the Spirit, not any document, is the principal guide for Friends.)
A Spring representative pointed out that their letter was one Meeting’s statement, not intended to speak for the Quarter, and that it was fine if other Meetings had different views, while respecting that Spring had their own.
However, some critics were not satisfied with this. Josh Conrad read from I John Chapter 4, about “false prophets” who are “of the spirit of the antichrist.”
Wayne Lamb compared the Spring Letter to the teachings and practice of David Koresh (of the Waco cult which left more than 80 dead, including many children, in a 1993 shootout with authorities), and Jim Jones (of the Peoples Temple cult, which killed more than 900 people, also including many children, in a 1978 massacre).
Similarly abusive (not to say slanderous) language and accusations, it is clear, have not been absent from the debates that have been ongoing over diversity of beliefs in NCYM. Friends in Fancy Gap Meeting, which left the Yearly Meeting shortly after the purge campaign began, cited their experience of being repeatedly subjected to “cruel things” being said.
“Over the last decade, we have seen members and meetings of NCYM (FUM) display cruelty and meanness in their behavior toward Friends with whom they disagree. . . .This kind of behavior feels like a direct violation of the only standard we know of that describes true followers of Jesus Christ. . . .
We believe that North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends (FUM) is dysfunctional and very much in need of help. We know this by the behavior we observe, not through the abstractions of theology. We see cruelty, meanness, manipulation, hostility and codependency. We are not just pointing a finger at those who attack us theologically but those who permit this behavior as well.
As most readers know, the family of an alcoholic can be as responsible for the continuation of the disease as the victim himself. We believe that even those in NCYM with whom we align theologically have failed to confront the institution’s illness and are complicit as well.
The repeated experiences of their members was cited as a major reason why when the latest purge effort began, Fancy Gap resolved that “enough is enough.”
However, at Western Quarter, such statements did not go unanswered.
I had been included as a Spring Representative, and stood to rebuke these statements as false, unfounded, and out of order, both un-Christian and un-Quakerly.
I added that if anyone present thought that anything even remotely like such activities as had been referred to were underway or planned at Spring, they needed to stop talking and call the authorities. (I am confident no one will dare do that.)
The clerk soon brought the discussion to a close, and lunch followed.
From one perspective, the outbursts at Western Quarter could be considered par for the course, one more battering episode in the purge campaign.
But I felt rather different about it. In fact, it seemed to me that the session, although arduous, went very well for Spring.
Here’s why: First, the witness of the Spring’s September letter, with its call for tolerant community and its showing that creedal purge efforts in fact violate “core beliefs” of the yearly meeting, was clearly and fully delivered, in all its reasonable eloquence.
Second, this reading threw into high relief the extreme and hysterical character of the criticisms raised about it, and its authors.
And third, on this occasion, the abusive behavior did not go unchallenged. Despite the attacks, Spring declined to be made a victim or scapegoat.
And finally, despite the overheated talk, there was no proposal offered to challenge Spring’s status. (Indeed, I doubt any such would have gotten a hearing.)
To be sure, this struggle is not over. On June 6, the YM Representative Body will again convene, and the purge campaign will presumably make yet another effort to “purify” the body. Will it succeed? Stay tuned.
A couple of footnotes: Rather than parroting scurrilous nonsense about the antichrist, I urged those at Western Quarter to remember instead Paul’s charge in Galatians 6:2, about bearing one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfilling the law of Christ.
After all, the reality of diverse theologies and witness among North Carolina YM meetings has long been part of NCYM’s history, on many concerns.
For example, for several early decades, NC Friends thought owning slaves was not only moral but was in fact God’s will, taught in the Bible — as did other churches.
But then, after a few decades, doubts arose. And over several more decades of rethinking and –yes– internal debate, that view changed to its diametrical opposite: slave-owning came to be seen by Carolina Friends as anti-christian and contrary to the Bible and God’s will.
Similar reversals in numerous other “core beliefs” could also be traced.
So the fact that today there are issues on which Carolina Friends are not of one mind about what God and the Bible demand is neither a surprise, nor a scandal.
Instead, it remains part of NCYM’s burden to bear in our time. One hopes the body can learn to bear it in a patient, Christian and peaceable manner.
This may have been a new idea to some present; but it is thoroughly biblical, and bears repeating.
Another note: Here’s a bit of current insight from outside: The Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) is suffering through parallel tensions over diverse beliefs, and such concrete issues as welcoming LGBTQ believers.
Ted Grimsrud, a longtime Mennonite theologian, just posted an article assessing this ordeal, and considering the prospects for the church to get through it without major schism or attrition. Overall, his forecast is not very optimistic; but that’s not why I’m mentioning his piece. The following observation he drew from the MC USA experience seems to me to apply not only to his church but also to North Carolina Yearly Meeting:
“A prerequisite for life-enhancing discernment in MC USA must be a decision to no longer scapegoat or be willing to sacrifice the spiritual well-being of a vulnerable minority for the sake of the “peace” of the larger institution. . . .
Clearly the issue is not “homosexuality” or LGBTQ Mennonites and their friends who are simply trying to remain part of a church and a tradition that they identify with.
The problem, I’d suggest, is more that some Mennonites have not learned how to respect and live with difference and other Mennonites have not learned to let those who can’t live with differences self-select themselves out of the fellowship.” (Emphasis added.)
PS. In case you’ve never seen the alleged Carolina lair of the Anti-Christ, here is a brief illustrated guide. Can you spot the telltale signs of the “Anti-Christ” on the loose??